Steam’s new laissez-faire content guidelines—which officially allow anything short of illegal activity and “obvious trolling” in games on its store—are an untenable attempt to have it both ways. On the one hand, Valve obviously no longer wants the responsibility of playing arbiter to what kind of content should and should not be considered “acceptable” for a Steam game. On the other hand, Valve also doesn’t want the games on the Steam Store to be considered “a reflection of Valve’s values.”
This attempt to thread an admittedly difficult needle doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. Allowing almost anything on the world’s most popular PC gaming storefront is, in itself, “a reflection of Valve’s values,” and the company can’t absolve itself of the responsibility and implicit endorsement of hateful content that will come with that allowance.
…But I defend your right to say it
It’s not hard to see why giving up on content moderation wholesale might seem appealing to a company like Valve (even beyond explanations that focus on laziness or cheapness). Just in the last month, Valve has faced highly publicized controversies over delisting “erotic” visual novel games while allowing titles like the utterly debauched Agony and school shooting game Active Shooter (which was recently reinstated on the service).
Each such decision brings unwelcome press attention and outright ire from players that think Valve is being too strict or too lenient with what’s allowed on Steam. Valve’s inconsistent and poorly defined content rules haven’t helped it in this regard, but even storefronts with relatively clear guidelines face controversy over similar decisions—see the frequently recurring questions over Apple’s handling of various games on the iOS App Store.
“The harsh reality of this space… is that there is absolutely no way we can navigate it without making some of our players really mad,” Valve’s Erik Johnson wrote in announcing the company’s new policy yesterday. Faced with the prospect of not being able to please everybody, it’s as if Valve is throwing up its hands and saying, “Fine, just do what you want and stop getting angry with us.”
If I squint, I can almost see the logic in this kind of position. No, Valve’s Steam content guidelines aren’t a free speech issue in the First Amendment sense (which only applies to government action). At the same time, Steam’s position as the dominant distributor for PC games gives it immense power over what speech is and isn’t viable to get in front of a mass PC gaming audience. That gives any restrictions Valve might impose much more weight.
Yes, PC games can and do exist and succeed outside of Steam’s platform, especially when a big publisher is involved. But you don’t have to look hard to see indie PC developers complaining about the difficulties in making a living without Valve’s support. “It’s very hard to not go on Steam and make a commercially viable game,” Spy Party developer Chris Hecker told PC Gamer earlier this year.
That said, Valve can’t stop a PC game from existing altogether. Unlike dedicated game consoles and iOS—where the hardware maker controls the only legitimate way to distribute software—the PC has a long history as an open platform where any compiled application can be allowed to run. In a way, Valve’s new policy is reflective of this “anything goes” PC development ethos.
Not all PC storefronts share that same ethos, though. “A platform that allows ‘everything, unless it’s illegal or straight up trolling’ is ridiculous,” Itch.io creator Leaf Corcoran writes on Twitter. “Please keep your malicious, derogatory, discriminatory, bullying, harassing, demeaning content off @itchio. Our ban buttons are ready.”
“It would pain me to see the platform I’ve created being used to distribute any sort of content that promotes intolerance or hate against others,” Corcoran wrote in a 2014 message on the site. “The hours invested into itch.io by all those who participate should not boil down into a delivery mechanism for someone’s inappropriate behavior.”
But itch.io’s boutique position isn’t quite the same as Valve’s market-making dominance. By barring a PC game from Steam, Valve has the power to effectively kill (or at least severely hobble) that game’s ability to succeed as a commercial product. That’s a power Valve is now saying it doesn’t want to wield except when absolutely necessary (as in the case of illegal content).
“Offending someone shouldn’t take away your game’s voice,” as Johnson puts it. “We believe you should be able to express yourself like everyone else, and to find others who want to play your game. But that’s it.”
Then again, companies like Google don’t seem willing to let just anyone piggyback on their services to find their “voice” and their players. Google Play has a functional (but not technical) monopoly on app distribution for most non-Kindle Android devices in the West. Yet developer access to that store still comes with a laundry list of restrictions on inappropriate content. Apparently, Google doesn’t want its storefront (or its corporate image) to be associated with hate speech, violent threats, explicit sexual acts, “apps that promote self harm,” bullying and harassment, or “sensitive events.”
You’re locked in here with me
This gets into the functional and reputational limits of Valve’s libertarian, almost-anything-goes, we-just-want-to-give-your-game-a-voice position. It’s also where the whole thing begins to fall apart.
Valve would like you to believe that since it allows practically any game on the Steam Store, it isn’t explicitly endorsing the position of any specific game on that store. “If we allow your game onto the Store, it does not mean we approve or agree with anything you’re trying to say with it,” Johnson writes. “If you’re a developer of offensive games, this isn’t us siding with you against all the people you’re offending.”
Unfortunately for Valve, a lack of explicit values regarding content is, in itself, a value position. What’s more, it’s a position that allows any manner of toxic and hateful messaging to benefit from Valve’s brand and service, no matter how much the company may try to distance itself from the reputational consequences. And yes, this still applies even if some form of algorithmic and volunteer tagging magic prevents the vast majority of users from ever having to see the worst of the worst content.
Part of this issue is practical. Even Valve’s own largely hands-off position still requires it to police content that is illegal or “obvious trolling.” While determining what’s illegal in various regions can be done (often with a whole lot of effort), having to decide what is “obvious trolling” leaves Valve accepting responsibility for some content.
Is a barely interactive “game” where you beat up feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian (which was hosted briefly on Newgrounds) considered “trolling,” or is it an important “message” the makers should be allowed to distribute via Steam? How about a spiritual update to Custer’s Revenge where you rape indigenous people en masse?
By allowing practically the most hateful games imaginable on its storefront, Steam offers an implicit endorsement that amounts to much more than just a place on the digital shelf. Steam developers get access to a wide array of benefits that Valve is happy to promote to potential partners. Being on Steam means getting in-game chat functions and friends lists, streamlined patch distribution, community hubs and discussion boards, anti-cheat technology, access to the Steam Marketplace for in-game items, and more.
Valve’s willingness to provide this suite of features to any game that wants it goes well beyond just giving game makers an ability to “express themselves.” It amounts to improving the game in a way that looks an awful lot like active, completely content-neutral support. By not rejecting anything, Valve is effectively supporting everything, in a way that looks a lot like “siding with” any controversial game’s success.
Follow the money
And even without those Steam-provided benefits, Valve would be unable to extricate itself from the monetary relationship it’s now willing to enter into with any game maker sharing whatever message. Even a game that never sells a single copy on Steam earns Valve $100 through its Steam Direct fees. When that’s recouped (at $1,000 in sales), Valve still takes its usual 30 percent cut from any sales.
By deciding not to restrict any legal but hateful content, Valve is making the passive decision to profit from that content. And if Valve is willing to make money from a game on its service, it has to be willing to own its association with that game, for better or worse. Like it or not, when it comes to controversial content, Valve is effectively siding with the bottom line.
That’s Valve’s decision to make, of course, and a free-speech absolutist might even argue that it’s an admirable one. But it is a decision, and it’s one that lets anyone, with any point of view, essentially tie themselves to the Steam brand, complete with the explicit benefits and implicit endorsements that come with it.
By refusing to define its own values, Valve will be letting anyone and everyone try to define those values by tying their content to Steam’s storefront. Opting not to decide what’s appropriate is a decision in and of itself, and Valve will rightly bear the consequences of that decision.